The audio recording for this week will help guide you through this process. So don’t worry if there seems to be a few more things to remember this time. You can always re-read these notes later or discuss your progress with the group as well. Let’s look at some examples of how you might use Stoic premeditation of adversity that incorporate some of the concepts and techniques you’ve been practising over the past few weeks.
Suppose you’ve noticed, through your self-monitoring, that you become nervous during challenging conversations with certain people. You might begin by picturing a scene in which you try to assert yourself while talking to them. You’d pick a scene perhaps in which they’re mildly confrontational, and your anxiety or discomfort could be rated about 30-40%, rather than one in which your anxiety is 100% and you potentially feel quite overwhelmed. Start with small steps and work your way up systematically. There are two main aspects of your Stoic practice that you might build upon during the audio recordings, while you’re rehearsing ways of coping and exposing yourself to (potentially) “stressful” scenes in your imagination.
The first thing you should do when picturing (seemingly) upsetting events is to continually remind yourself, as Epictetus said, that it’s not things that upset us but our judgements about things. Ancient Stoic students were told to have this maxim always metaphorically “ready-to-hand” to cope with adversity, and so you can repeat it to yourself as a “coping statement” while picturing stressful situations each day. Think of this as if you were doing “mental sit-ups” and strengthening your emotional resilience “muscles”, your Stoic principles and values. Visualising difficult situations gives you a way to build up mental resilience even when you’re not currently facing any significant emotional challenges in life. This “cognitive distancing” strategy alone, when used carefully, can have very powerful benefits during imaginal exposure. Practice it as a form of mindfulness. Be aware of your own value-judgements and automatic thoughts, and observe them in a detached manner while you picture future events. You don’t need to try to change your thinking, just observe your habitual thoughts and judgements without “buying into them”. Remember that an impression is just an impression and not the thing it represents, as Epictetus puts it. Don’t allow yourself to be swept along by your feelings and impressions. Just do nothing in response to them except studying these subjective experiences in a detached and objective manner as if you were observing someone else’s thought processes.
Valued Action & Virtue
It’s sometimes better to picture scenes more passively until your feelings have abated enough for you to begin the slightly more complex task of imagining yourself acting differently, in situations that require it. For example, if you feel ready to do so, you might focus on your core values, and mentally rehearse how you would respond if acting according to your conception of virtue. Perhaps doing what you would consider praiseworthy and healthy, or emulating what you imagine someone wise, just, and courageous would say and do in a similar situation. The Stoics advise us to focus on our commitment to doing the right thing, and to place more importance on this than upon the other person’s reaction, or the outcome of the conversation. To put it another way, you’d distinguish carefully between what’s up to you, or under your direct control, and what is not, in any situation you’re mentally rehearsing.
In a conversation, very simply, your own actions are up to you, but the other person’s responses are not. When therapists train people in assertiveness skills, likewise, the first step is often to encourage them to accept that even if you’re very skilled at being assertive, the other person can still respond negatively. So if you want to handle challenging situations well, you have to remember that their behaviour is not under your direct control, and be willing to accept that, whatever you do, your actions may fail to achieve the external outcome you’d prefer to happen. In other words, from a Stoic perspective, it’s your own actions that really matter not the other person’s. Focusing on the Stoic concept of virtue, as what’s “up to us”, and indifference toward what’s outside our direct control, can be particularly helpful when mentally rehearsing situations that require you to interact with other people.